Always there is the illusion of the easy path. Always there is the illusion, which gripped Donald Rumsfeld and now grips many Democrats, that you can fight a counterinsurgency war with a light footprint, with cruise missiles, with special forces operations and unmanned drones. Always there is the illusion, deep in the bones of the Pentagon's Old Guard, that you can fight a force like the Taliban by keeping your troops mostly in bases, and then sending them out in well-armored convoys to kill bad guys.
There is simply no historical record to support these illusions. The historical evidence suggests that these middling strategies just create a situation in which you have enough forces to assume responsibility for a conflict, but not enough to prevail.
The record suggests what Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly understands - that only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success. This is a doctrine, as McChrystal wrote in his remarkable report, that puts population protection at the center of the Afghanistan mission, that acknowledges that insurgencies can only be defeated when local communities and military forces work together.
To put it concretely, this is a doctrine in which small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.
These are the realistic choices for America's Afghanistan policy - all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building. And we might as well acknowledge that it's not an easy call. The costs and rewards are tightly balanced. But in the end, President Barack Obama was right: "You don't muddle through the central front on terror.... You don't muddle through stamping out the Taliban."
Since 1979, we have been involved in a long, complex conflict against Islamic extremism. We've fought this ideology in many ways in many places, and we shouldn't pretend we understand how this conflict will evolve. But we should understand that the conflict is unavoidable and that when extremism pushes, it's in our long-term interests to push back - and that eventually, if we do so, extremism will wither.
Afghanistan is central to this effort partly because it could again become a safe haven to terrorists, but mostly because of its effects on the stability of Pakistan. As Stephen Biddle noted in a recent essay in The American Interest, the Taliban is a transnational Pashtun movement active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is part of a complex insurgency trying to topple the Pakistani regime.
Pakistan has a fragile government with an estimated 50 or more nuclear weapons. A Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed al-Qaida at worst.
A Taliban reconquest would also, it should be said, be a moral atrocity from which American self-respect would not soon recover.
Proponents of withdrawal often acknowledge the costs of defeat but argue that the cause is hopeless anyway. On this, let me note a certain pattern. When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view. Read Clare Lockhart's Sept. 17 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get a sense of the way many knowledgeable people view the situation.
Amidst all the problems, the NATO coalition has a few things going for it. First, American forces have become quite good at counterinsurgency. They have a battle-tested strategy, experienced troops and a superb new leadership team. According to the political scientists Andrew J. Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli, since World War II, counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time.
Second, the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor. This is not Vietnam or even Iraq.
Third, while many Afghan institutions are now dysfunctional, there is a base on which to build. The Afghan Army is a successful institution. Local villages have their own centuries-old civic institutions. The National Solidarity Program was able to build development councils in 23,000 villages precisely because the remnants of civil society still exist.
We have tried to fight the Afghan war the easy way, and it hasn't worked. Switching now to the McChrystal strategy is a difficult choice, and President Barack Obama is right to take his time. But Obama was also right a few months ago when he declared: "This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.... This is fundamental to the defense of our people."